Sydney and Ondine are an elderly couple who have for many years worked for Valerian and Margaret Street, a white couple that made its fortune selling candy. The Streets are so wealthy that, upon retirement, they could buy their own private Caribbean island, the ficional Isle des Chevaliers, and move there with their servants. Significant sections of the narrative detail the back stories of the Streets, who have a troubled relationship with their only child, Michael; as the story begins, they are anticipating his return from the U.S. for the Christmas holidays. Michael studies anthropology and works closely with Native American communities; it is unclear whether he will actually return or not.
The one character in the novel who perhaps does resemble some of Morrison's other early lead characters might be Son, Jadine's love interest. Son arrives on the island by stowing away on a boat owned by the Streets after jumping ship in the harbor of a nearby island (presumably Dominique). Son comes from a fictional all-Black town in Florida called Eloe, which he had to leave when he was involved in the death of a woman. As a jazz musician with a troubled past, Son has some similarities with characters from novels like Jazz; he also resembles the character Booker Stearborn from Morrison's God Help the Child.
Tar Baby is also Morrison's first and only novel to be set, for a significant chunk of its plot, outside of the U.S. The island featured in the novel is described as being close to the island of Dominique (also fictional, though "Dominique" may be an alternative name for the real-life island of Dominica). Within the novel, the locals describe a mythical history where the "horsemen" in the island's name ("Chevaliers") were a group of blind slaves had escaped centuries earlier; the locals say their descendents continue to roam free in the otherwise unpopulated hillside. In addition to Black-white race relations, Tar Baby explores how American tourists exploit low-paid Afro-Caribbean workers, and generally have a colonialist orientation to the Caribbean.
The novel's title, "Tar Baby," is an allusion to an African American folk story that is well-summarized here. The best known version of the story involves a doll created by Br'er Fox to entrap Br'er Rabbit. The doll is covered in sticky tar; when the rabbit touches it, it becomes stuck. In mid-20th century usage, the phrase "tar baby" was also a euphemism for an African American person, sometimes derogatory. Morrison herself alluded to this usage of the phrase in her novel Sula, with a light-skinned boarder in Eva Peace's house ironically dubbed "Tar Baby."
In her Foreword to the 2004 paperback edition of Tar Baby, Toni Morrison recounts hearing this story told by her grandmother as a child. In the version her grandmother told, the Tar Baby is gendered female, and there is a degree of sexual tension between the rabbit and the doll. The doll has also been created by a farmer, not by Br'er Fox:
Very funny, then scary, then funny again. Yet puzzling. At some level the tar baby story begged and offered understanding beyond “outlaw peasant outwits inventive master with wit and cunning.” It’s clear why the rabbit ate as much lettuce and cabbage as he could. It’s clear why the farmer had to stop him. But why a tar figure? And why (in the version I was told) is it dressed as a female? Did the farmer understand the rabbit so well he could count on its curiosity? But the rabbit isn’t curious at all; he passes by the tar baby, casually acknowledging its presence with “Good morning.” It is his being ignored and her being ill-mannered that annoy, then infuriate him. He threatens, then strikes her. Now he is stupid; if one of his paws sticks, why try another? The inventive farmer has succeeded but gets involved in a form of punishment, and having understood motivation so well earlier, now misunderstands completely. Now the stupid rabbit becomes the clever one, pretending that the punishment he fears most is being returned to his own neighborhood. He knows the farmer would reckon this return to the ’hood as supreme torture, worse than death, so into the briar patch he is unceremoniously, gleefully thrown. The figure of tar, having done its work, falls out of the action of the tale, yet remains not only as its strange, silent center, but also as the sticky mediator between master and peasant, plantation owner and slave. Constructed by the farmer to foil and entrap, it moves beyond trickery to art. The principal relationship is not limited to the rabbit and the farmer; it is also between the rabbit and the tar figure. She snares him; he knows it, yet compounds his entanglement while demanding to be freed. A love story, then. Difficult, unresponsive, but seducing woman and clever, anarchic male, each with definitions of independence and domesticity, of safety and danger that clash. The novel signals this conflict at the beginning: “He believed he was safe.” “Believed” rather than thought in order to stamp doubt, suggest unease. (Toni Morrison, Foreword to "Tar Baby" )
On the one hand, the suggestion here seems to be that Jadine represents the "stuck up" Tar Baby that the rabbit strikes, and indeed, there is a scene in the novel involving partner violence that supports this reading, where Son strikes Jadine late in the novel. But the framing of the story might also be reversed: the "Tar Baby" might also be Son -- a Black man with strong connections to a historically Black community in the south -- and the powerful pull he exerts on the more mainstream-oriented Jadine. But who exactly is the farmer in this framing? Does the rabbit escape? In the end, the title of the novel has a somewhat ambiguous relationship to the novel's characters and plot.